LivingArts: Tool Stewardship

The fine Japanese saw cuts on the pull stroke, impelled by the light touch of a learned hand. This skill and exacting is possessed, too, by the saw’s makers. Generations of the finest Japanese toolmakers have buried their steel in the earth, imbuing each subsequent generation with the materials, and methods, to craft what are among the best tools in the world. 

The summer I first started shoemaking, I met a hand-plane maker named Konrad Sauer via Linked-In, and visited him in his Kitchener workshop in real life. It remains one of the most impressive I’ve seen. It marked the first time I had seen tools regarded as some of the best in the world, many passed on to him. He may possess some of the last of their kind; as these Japanese toolmakers run out of the steel passed down from their forefathers, they often cease toolmaking. Konrad’s collection is resultantly priceless.

My studio visit with Konrad was the opener of dialogues I have maintained and entered into as a craftsperson, around what I’ve come to call ‘tool stewardship.’

To learn a craft seriously, one typically trains under the guidance of a master, in their workshop. Once they have left, they amass tools to become autonomous and build their own shop. ‘Most shoemakers starting out, now spend a lot of time scouring the world, and Ebay for old tools. One, because new ones are often not available, and two, because the new tools you can find are often inferior.’ (Carre Ducker Blog) This time intensive searching process repeats any time you need to replace, or increase your tool inventory.

In shoemaking it’s almost ubiquitously old tools over new. There are other crafts where it is less so. In a more popular field like woodworking, where there’s a larger consumer market, more modern innovation takes place in making quality tools. The difference for fields like this lies in tools outside of the general pro-sumer category, in tools made by toolmakers who hone a craft. This runs counter to industries where the mandate is to keep prices low and profits high, an equation that inevitably looses something in the balance, and encourages disposability or updating. Outside of this marketplace, fewer people are spending more money on rarer, higher quality tools, which will be passed down from one craftsperson to the next in most scenarios. Conceiving of tool gathering in this way situates you within the long arc of the craft, looking backward to look forward. These tools that we are, poetically, borrowing from our grandchildren, bear the imprints of their old masters hands on them (Marcel Mrsan, Shoes & Craft).

My tools now become heavier. The pragmatic articles used to perform my everyday work, that over time even shape to my own particular hand, are on a longer journey. They are on their way to another maker, and vital to the continuation of my craft. The idea of tool stewardship is important, because each tool represents a new potentiality. Those entrusted to my maintenance for now seem to more accurately belong to a collective whose potential I enrich through my care of them.